Review: BRIGHT STAR Finally Shines at Omaha Community Playhouse

Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's bluegrass musical, BRIGHT STAR, opened at the Omaha Community Playhouse after several cancelations and set backs.

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Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's bluegrass musical, BRIGHT STAR, opened at the Omaha Community Playhouse after several cancelations and set backs. Cast in January 2020, it was originally scheduled to open April 17, 2020 but was canceled during the covid 19 outbreak. Opening night was rescheduled to January 2021, but was once again shut down for the same reason. Finally, it was optimistically scheduled to open February 4th of this year, but was delayed yet again for another two weeks, turning what was to be a four week engagement into two weeks.

This was unfortunate, not only for the cast and crew who worked hard for an extraordinarily long time preparing for the show, but for the audience who looked forward to a musical that hadn't been performed in the Omaha area before.

Was it worth the wait? Yes.

When I first saw BRIGHT STAR, I thought the story was not believable. That just couldn't happen. So I researched it and discovered it was based on fact. The Iron Mountain baby did happen. Google it yourself. It is unbelievable!

The story isn't the only unusual thing about this production. The music, nominated for a Grammy Award in 2017, is not something you'd typically expect to hear in a Broadway musical. It's rollicking, shoe tapping bluegrass. And the orchestra under the direction of Jennifer Novak Haar is stellar. Michael Frey is mesmerizing on the fiddle. Combined, the musicians are a constellation of talent worthy of thunderous applause.

Roxanne Wach, Omaha director and performer, undertook the challenges of producing this show during a time of uncertainty. Her efforts paid off in a beautifully produced experience, comprised of many moving parts.

Superstar leads, Angela Jenson Frey and Jay Srygley, take us through the story of Alice Murphy and Jimmy Ray who discover budding love, heartbreak, and renewal in the South. Both have vocals that soar throughout the theatre coupled with acting sensitivity that portrays their evolving characters flawlessly. They are able to grow from young love to maturity through subtle changes in their mannerisms and voices. Lindsay Pape's wise costume choices depict their ages well. Jenson Frey's costume change in "Way Back in the Day" is creative and effective in transitioning the time from the current 1940's back to 1923.

Michael Markey, Dan Wach, and Cork Ramer portray three very different fathers. Markey as Mayor Dobbs is an ambitious, hard hearted man who puts his business interests ahead of his son Jimmy Ray's happiness. Wach is Daddy Cane, the overalls-wearing kindly father who welcomes his son, Billy, back from the war with open arms and tragic news. Ramer as Daddy Murphy is a staunchly religious father who keeps a tight fist on his Bible while reining in his daughter, Alice. Each actor does a great job playing out these differences, emoting tyranny, love, and pain.

As Mama Murphy, Peggy Holloway's desperation as she clings to Alice is heartfelt and real. I could feel the pain of a mother who is powerless to help her daughter.

Charlotte Hedican (Florence) and Derek R. Bonin (Max) add sweet charm to Margo's bookstore with flirtatious and slightly awkward behaviors. The ensemble adds so much with Julian Adair's choreography and big choral numbers.

Matt Karasek plays Billy as the likable boy next door. His innocence is palpable and his pleasing voice matches his personality. His interaction with the bookish girl who loves him, Margo (Analisa Swerczek) is tender. Swerczek's reactions are winsome and funny. You feel for her as she tries to win Billy, yet lets him go to find his voice.

Kevin Olsen and Mackenzie Zielke provide comic relief as Daryl and Lucy, employees of Alice's Asheville Southern Journal. Their back and forth quips draw laughs, not only because Steve Martin is a funny guy and can come up with some great one liners, but because Olsen and Zielke can deliver.

Although the music did earn a Grammy nomination, I found some of the lyrics to be simplistic and repetitious. "A Man's Gotta Do" is one of those. However, Markey's delivery makes the song work due to his passion and energy. "Heartbreaker" seems overly dramatic, although Srygley's vocals are chill worthy. "Asheville" beautifully sung by Swerczek who sings the story and not just the words, and "I Had a Vision" harmonized to perfection by Jensen Frey and Srygley are my favorites. Wach and Karasek have almost haunting harmony in "She's Gone." Zielke's "Another Round" demands another round of the bar room song and dance number as it is just plain fun!

Martin's book had me grinning with some clever literary lines such as, "I'm going to cozy up with a few unnecessary adverbs and cut their heads off." For a person who loves words and books, BRIGHT STAR is a delight. References to classic authors, literary allusions, and the challenges of getting published are captivating.

Jim Othuse's set is a constantly moving target. The illusion of the Blue Ridge Mountains behind the orchestra is stunning. Set pieces are constantly rolled on and off stage by cast members, sometimes just as a practicality and sometimes with a bit of acting that is incorporated into the story. In one scene benches are thumped onto the stage in succession as cool accents to the music.

If you want a story of sweeping pain and redemption, a fantastic orchestra, golden voices, and a cast and crew that has poured its heart and soul into a production that won't give up, go see it. Sometimes you can't see the stars for the clouds, but this one breaks through and shines.

Photo credit: Robertson Photography


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